by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Jodie West in a scene from <i>Go Public</i>
A series of moments that create an entire school day flow from one to another in Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District. Unlike most documentaries, we aren’t told in the opening minutes what the point of the movie is. In fact, the message isn’t revealed until nearly the end, while a school principal drives home after a long day.
“Unless you have been in our schools and have walked through the doors and had the opportunity to see all the wonderful things that are happening, it’s hard to make that call on how our schools are really doing,” she muses aloud.
Go Public brings audiences through those doors so they can experience authentic moments. Some moments are wonderful; others aren’t perfect. But unlike Waiting for Superman, which criticizes public schools without venturing inside, we get a firsthand look at the frustrations, small victories and joys that happen daily.
Husband and wife filmmakers James and Dawn O’Keeffe present a typical day in the Pasadena Unified School District — in a manner that’s atypical. They asked 50 small camera crews to follow a variety of school staff, students and families from sunup to bedtime on May 8, 2012. The videographers (including students) recorded 50 subjects and visited 28 schools in a single day throughout the diverse district.
There’s no narrative or commentary. Snippets of the school day speak for themselves. Teachers, classified employees, students, administrators and parents are nameless, and we aren’t sure who is who. Interactions with students are captured in a series of moments that weave together in a way that’s alternately mesmerizing, mundane, dramatic, funny and gripping.
Some lovely moments: An African American girl earnestly tells her teacher she wants to be the first in her family to attend college. A school employee patiently deals with a student’s emotional meltdown, offering a tissue and a snack. A teacher explains: “Of course it’s hard work, but that’s what life is.” A school psychologist tells a mother that her son has demonstrated signs of empathy for the first time, and the mother breaks down. An alternative education student who thought he would end up in prison is planning for college. A teacher tells a student his artwork — nails in a shoe — is a wonderful example of irony. A janitor takes pride in keeping a school shipshape.
Just like most school days, the movie begins with children being woken by their parents, having breakfast, zipping up backpacks, and going to school by foot, bus and car. There are visits to multiple classrooms, ranging from AP to special education. We see recesses, lunchtimes, counseling sessions and after-school activities, followed by journeys home. The first sign that something’s different about this particular day comes when teachers stage an afternoon protest against budget cuts.
Students finish homework and parents cook dinner. Just when it seems that the students will be tucked in and kissed goodnight and the credits will roll, it becomes apparent that the movie’s not over. There’s still a long night ahead. United Teachers of Pasadena (UTP) members, administrators and others are going to a school board meeting to discuss budget cuts.
Pleas are made to maintain programs and positions. UTP members remind school leaders of the sacrifices they have made by taking furlough days. A student tells board members that going to school with people of different cultural backgrounds has made her a “more open person” and begs them to preserve the many things that make her school great.
Warning: Plot spoiler ahead.
A district that has already made $2 million in budget cuts approves another $4.5 million for the following year. During the credits, we learn some school employees we admired and followed for an entire day won’t return, despite excellent work and dedication. We can only hope they will be hired back.
Go Public is an amazingly ambitious, layered, moving and inspirational film. It’s a call to action for stakeholders everywhere to support public schools — because they help children succeed, for the most part, despite dwindling resources. Go Public shows us what make public schools tick — the people — and reminds us that despite challenges, there’s also a great deal to celebrate and treasure in our schools. To schedule a viewing in your community, visit www.tugg.com/titles and type in Go Public.
Q&A with Dawn O’Keeffe
Professional filmmakers Dawn and Jim O’Keeffe co-produced Go Public; Jim also directed the film by Bluefield Productions. Married 28 years, they have four children who attended public schools in Pasadena. We caught up with Dawn, who shares insights about her family and the film.
Why did you make the film?
People have opinions about public schools that are not based on reality. So our purpose was to bring people into public schools so they would have a more informed understanding of the complexity, the beauty and the textured richness, as well as the challenges that are very real because of repeated budget cuts. We wanted to create informed advocates, so next time a community faces decisions about whether to pass a parcel tax or bond measure, there will be an appreciation for our schools and for what they accomplish every day.
Why weren’t charter schools in Pasadena filmed?
We didn’t visit them because we were covering traditional public schools. I’m not anti-charter, but I have seen a lot of charter schools pulling away middle-class families — and it hurts public schools. We’ve had multiple charters fail in our community; that’s been true all over the nation. When that happens, who takes those kids back? The public schools do.
How has the reaction to the film been?
We’ve had a great reaction. People who don’t have children in public school base their opinions on what they read in the newspaper or see on television, and many of them say the movie changed their opinion 180 degrees. They say public school is much different than the negative impressions they held. Parents with children in public school say the movie reinforced their view that they had made the right choice and made them feel they are part of something important and are contributing to the greater good. Teachers say they feel they have been seen, heard and vindicated — and that the work they do has been celebrated.
What do you want people to take away from this movie?
There’s been an onslaught of other movies from the voucher and charter movement saying, “We need an alternative because this isn’t working.” Our film shows public education is working. But it’s working under stress, and you can’t keep cutting back without an impact. I want people who see this movie to become advocates for public education. All of the decisions made about public schools are made by people who are not living the public school experience. There’s a missing voice in the conversation. We wanted to capture that voice and tell the other side of the story. I think we did that.
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